Hal Mowery: Driven by Policy, Not Politics

His given name was Harold F. Mowery, Jr., but to most folks he was simply Hal.

His recent passing was marked by an extensive recitation of jobs and positions held and titles and recognitions earned. While this reflection was nice and true, there is still more to be said about a highly accomplished and warm-hearted individual.

Despite spending two-and-a-half decades in the General Assembly, Hal was by no means a polished professional politician. Though looking like he stepped out of central casting, he showed none of the slickness and slippery subtlety people associate with the stereotypical politician. He was a throwback to the times when individuals raised a family, established themselves professionally, built community connections, and then considered public service as a way of giving back. They brought a wealth of applied experience to work, not just a passel of theories and talking points.

Hal enjoyed a political reincarnation as a state Senator. He became an agent of change, committed to a far-reaching reform agenda, years before an ill-fated payraise would spark an aggressive reform movement. It was counterintuitive that someone with accumulated insider experience would become more open to change. A hard-fought primary and a closer-than-expected general election energized him with a sense of purpose. Pride entered in too, as he did not want the crash-and-burn Hafer gubernatorial campaign of 1990 to be the final entry on his political resume.

His interest in issues was incredibly broad – education, health care, tort reform, municipal finance, pension reform, open government. He never seemed to pick a lightweight issue or introduce a piece of legal froth that could zip through the process. He was much better at sweating the details of a heavy-duty plan than chest-thumping upfront, or jumping into the credit-claiming scrum afterwards. Thus, his legislative contributions are underappreciated. Digging into municipal pension reform, as he did when in the House, was not a glory assignment. In the welter of important subjects Hal tackled, young people were his constant crusade, as he sought to expand their opportunities for education and training and protect them from dangers such as binge drinking.

The attributes and skills that secured him success in insurance were tailor-made for public policy. He explored the potential savings to be mined from a statewide teachers’ contract, even when the idea turned into a political piñata. When he dug in on an issue, such as defending the Dickinson Law School, blasting caps could not dislodge him.

He was serious about family values, fiscal responsibility, and personal integrity. But he could laugh at himself, even when people poked fun at him for climbing up on his favorite soapbox again. Conversely, he could bristle and flare with the best when someone questioned his ethics or challenged his knowledge.

In analyzing a state budget or a substantive bill, Hal wanted to take a sharp-eyed look inside and figure out if it could work, practically and financially. As a businessman, he had to make the numbers work on his side of the ledger and on the consumer side. He could not abide the wild guesstimates that decorated much of the legislation being debated. Frustration would surface, as he habitually grumped: “I just don’t understand why…” Impatience would surface when political gamesmanship frittered away solid chances for solution. Grouse he might at the difficulties in getting something sensible through the legislative process, but he grew adept at getting results. Innate optimism always overcame moments of discouragement.

Critics tried to paint him as a country club Republican. Yes, he was Republican, and yes, he was well acquainted with the golf course, yet that partisan straitjacket did not fit him. He knew farms and orchards and woodlands as well as business suites, so he was truly representative of the district he served. His immense body of civic and charitable work, done without fanfare, was evidence of a man who cared deeply about the community.

It was nearly impossible to squeeze an instant decision out of him. Partly because he was cautious by nature. But even more, he wanted to consult Phyllis. Her judgment and seal of approval mattered. Theirs was a wonderful partnership to watch in action.

Hal had an idealistic/altruistic streak. Many were surprised to find such inclinations in someone successful in hard-nosed professions, as insurance and public budgeting are. Every time he slammed into the walls of mindless politicking and senseless partisanship, he would regroup and concoct a new strategy. No surrender to cynicism. Convinced something was right to do, he never let go of the idea.

His success in public office is no mystery. People trusted him with their private dollars for insurance. So they trusted him with their public dollars as well. Hal repaid that trust with honest, dedicated, fiscally responsible service.

Those who met Hal, those who worked with him, and even some who disagreed with him, will always remember the smile, the laugh, the voice, the grace, the character, the plain talk, for these were unforgettable aspects of a very good man and a capable leader.

Mr. Atkinson worked closely with Senator Mowery during his twelve years in the Senate and did volunteer work on his Senate campaign.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.